Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The public's right to private information

The health questions surrounding Steve Jobs has sparked an ethical debate about the public's right to know when a public figure's health is failing.

When it turned out the founder and CEO of Apple computers was sick, Apple fans and investors got worried. In fact, Apple shares fell on the news.

Writing in the New York Times last week, business columnist Joe Nocera says Jobs has a responsibility to come clean with his health problems, if only to soothe investor worries and stop rumours from hurting the stock.

"Last week, he said he had a “hormone imbalance.” Now it’s “more complex” than that — whatever that means. If he really wants people to stop speculating about his health, as he claims, he sure has a funny way of dealing with it. Let’s be honest here: when you are a) a survivor of pancreatic cancer; and b) the world’s most charismatic, and possibly its most irreplaceable, corporate executive, putting out a press release announcing that your problems are “more complex” is only going to fan the flames, not douse them."

Arguing that Jobs' "health is a material fact for Apple’s shareholders," the company has a responsibility to disclose fully any health concerns, Nocera says.

"Enough is enough. If Mr. Jobs wants privacy, he should resign from Apple. If he did, of course, his health would no longer be anybody’s business but his own."

Not everyone agrees. In his Bioethics Discussion Blog, Los Angeles doctor Maurice Bernstein outlines the ethical questions involved.

"What defines an `important person' (any business man who runs a public shares company? A well-known movie or sports star? A candidate for a public office or one who is already in public office? A scientist who is on the verge of discovery? A physician in active medical/surgical practice? An airline pilot? .. and so on), Who sets the limits of personal medical information which must be disclosed?"

Summer Johnson, writing on the bioethics blog at Loyola University, written by editors of the American Journal of Bioethics, says says health issues of public figures should only be made public if they are hidden and affect their ability to do their jobs.

"Unless his health is so poor that his mental function is actually impaired to the point that he imperils the company and then he actually refuses to do what he actually did do (step-down as CEO temporarily taking medical leave), then and only then would a public outing of someone's medical status for the public good be morally justified. Otherwise, such medical information should be kept private unless the individual wishes to make it public."

Nocera, however, argues that Jobs has not been as upfront as he could have been.

"The time has come for Apple’s board to wrest control of this subject from Mr. Jobs, and do the right thing by the company’s shareholders. Say, once and for all, what is going on with Mr. Jobs’s health. Put the subject to rest. End the constant rumormongering. And then get back to the business of making the coolest products on earth."

Nocera, of course, is not a bioethicist. He is a business columnist -- so it's probably not surprising that he wants as much information released as possible.


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